The Key West community will meet tonight to decide whether -- and if so, how -- to respond to a nationally infamous man who hates homosexuals.
The Rev. Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, is scheduled to be in Key West on May 22 to protest the Gay/Straight Alliance at Key West High School. Phelps also is planning to demonstrate at the entrance to the island, in front of Sigsbee Park and at B'Nai Zion synagogue, according to a letter Phelps' daughter sent to Police Chief Donie Lee.
The group is planning an outdoor demonstration "regarding the judgment of God with respect to the dangers of promoting homosexuality, and the rest of the filthy manner of life and idol worshipping in this country," the letter states. The city does not require a permit for such assemblies.
Phelps' church is not recognized by mainstream Baptists and is monitored by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate group. His "church" comprises mostly his family members, about 60 of whom are said to protest three times a day, with signs that read, "God Hates Fags" and other anti-homosexual slurs. The church also protests at military funerals, claiming the deaths are the result of America's tolerance of homosexuality.
The Rev. Joe McMurray, pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, where tonight's meeting will be held, said he does not think that Anthony Charles Capo Jr., who often holds a sign that says "God Hates Fags.com" on Key West street corners, is formally connected with the Kansas group.
Meeting organizers will solicit ideas from community members and law enforcement officials, said McMurray. The gathering will include the police chief, Schools Superintendent Randy Acevedo and some city commissioners.
"We can come together and decide if there will be a response, and what it would be," McMurray said. "We'll also hear from law enforcement to see what they prefer in the interest of public safety."
The Police Department is developing an operational plan for Phelps' demonstration, but Lee emphasized that the general public should ignore Phelps.
"I know it's difficult and I know, firsthand, that it's an emotional issue, but as far as I'm concerned, that's the way to deal with it," said Lee, who is gay. Any demonstrations from counter-protesters would only make it more difficult for officers to keep the peace, Lee said.
Phelps' First Amendment rights allow him and his followers to express their opinions, and the police cannot arrest them for doing so.
Lee explained that if someone says something that directly creates a public safety issue, then the situation changes. He used the example of someone yelling "fire" in a crowded theater as an example that would jeopardize public safety and therefore be an arrestable offense.
"Short of that, people have the right to express their opinion," Lee said.
McMurray said he does not know what prompted Phelps to target the high school group in a town known for its acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, and its official motto of "One Human Family."
"I don't know if anybody has the 'why' behind Fred Phelps," McMurray said. "He wants to come disrupt, create unease and disturb the peace in a peace-loving community, and he raises money by suing municipalities who violate his civil rights during protests. He intimidates communities."
McMurray and others hope to hear ideas that would turn Phelps' protest into something positive for the community. One option would be a fundraiser for every hour that Phelps is here. People could make an hourly pledge to local charities such as AIDS Help and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, so the longer Phelps remained in town, the more money he would help raise for gay-friendly service organizations.
"This cannot be personal," said McMurray, who is gay. "Once it becomes personal, we're operating on his level."
J.T. Thompson, a graphic designer who founded the "One Human Family" movement, emphasized that confrontation with Phelps and his group will not serve any purpose.
"This guy earns a living making confrontations happen," Thompson said. "It will be a good day in the fact that we can unite people here. The meeting will gather input to unite the community in a peaceful, positive and loving response."